The Conversation Piece


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Making Modern Art in 18th-Century Britain

Kate Retford


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Out of Print

Shortlisted for the 2018 Apollo Book of the Year award

Pioneered by William Hogarth (1697–1764) and his peers in the early 18th century, and then revitalized by Johan Zoffany (1733–1810), the conversation piece was an innovative mode of portraiture, depicting groups posed in landscape or domestic settings. These artists grappled with creating complex multi-figured compositions and intricate narratives, filling their paintings with representations of socially, nationally, and temporally precise customs. Paying particular attention to the vibrant (and at times fabricated) interior and exterior settings in these works, Kate Retford discusses the various ways that the conversation piece engaged with the rich material culture of Georgian Britain. The book also explores how these portraits served a wide array of interests and concerns among familial networks and larger social groups. From codifying performances of politeness to engaging in cross-cultural exchanges, the conversation piece was a complex and nuanced expression of a multifaceted society. 

Published in association with the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art

Kate Retford is senior lecturer in 18th- and early 19th-century art at Birkbeck, University of London.

"...the book provides not only an extremely satisfying account of conversation pieces but makes significant contributions to our understanding of British art and the eighteenth century more broadly. Essential." — Craig Hanson, Choice

"Magisterial. . . . A landmark publication. It advances compelling new arguments about a major element of eighteenth-century artistic production and will surely prove both an essential reference text and an inspiration for future scholarship."—Catherine Roach, Journal of British Studies

Winner of the Outstanding Academic Title for 2018 award sponsored by Choice

Winner of the 2019 Historians of British Art Award, single-authored book with a subject between 1600-1800 category
ISBN: 9780300194807
Publication Date: October 24, 2017
Publishing Partner: Published in association with the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art
440 pages, 9 1/2 x 10
150 color + 85 b/w illus.